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Parents and Teachers Working Together: Should Food Be Used as Learning Materials?
By Terri Jo Swim, Ph.D., and Ramona Freeman, M.A.

Competencies for Food as Learning Materials Article

The Child Development Associates (CDA) competency that can be used for this article is:

• To maintain a commitment to professionalism

For more information on the CDA competency requirements, contact the Council for Early Childhood Recognition at (800) 424-4310.


 This article helps meet the following Certified Childcare Professionals (CCP) professional ability areas:

 The ability to demonstrate knowledge of child development theory, research, and practice.

• The ability to establish and maintain a well-run and purposeful early childhood educational environment for children.

For more information on the CCP certification, contact the National Child Care Association at (800) 543-7161.

“Devan, thanks for greeting the rest of the parents. I really needed to speak briefly with Mrs. Valdez. When she requested that I speak with her for a few moments, I knew that she must have a concern because she has never done that before. I could also tell that she was very nervous. She told me that she was concerned with something her son said yesterday. It turns out that she does not want us to fingerpaint with pudding anymore.” 

“Really, did she say why?” inquired Devan.

“She said that she had to correct her son yesterday at lunch for playing in his food. Some jelly dropped from his sandwich and he began to smear it on the table. She told him to stop. That’s when he said that Ms. Shannon and Ms. Devan let him do it at school. She asked if that was true. 

“I told her that we did use pudding for fingerpaint yesterday. I explained that we do this because the young three year olds tend to put the paint in their mouths. We use pudding so that it is safe for them.” 

“What did she think about that?” asked Devan. 

“Well, she didn’t seem to think that was much of a reason. She told me that she grew up in a small village in Mexico and that her family was very poor. She is afraid that her son will not appreciate what he has. She mentioned something about wasting food when other family members are hungry. I couldn’t believe it,” continued Shannon. “We do it all the time. I don’t think that the children think about the art project in that way. They really like it; anyway, it’s fun and safe.” 

“What did you tell her you’d do?” 

“I told her that I would like more time to think about her concern, but that I was thankful that she felt comfortable enough with me to voice her feelings. I suggested that we plan to talk about this further next week. 

Devan, I don’t know what to do or think. I’ve never thought about this before. It seems that she is blowing things out of proportion. What do you think?” 

“I’m not sure either. But, I think that she may have a point. Is it possible that children learn something different than what we intend? I remember working with a child, let’s call her Jessica, who lacked skills for interacting with other children. She would push her way into groups and demand to play. I spent a lot of time with her teaching, coaching, and supporting her new skills. One afternoon, a scuffle occurred in the dramatic play area. I asked the children present what happened and they said that Jessica pushed someone and that was why the child was crying. I realized that this was impossible because Jessica was across the room washing her hands. I wondered at the time if the children thought that I was spending time with Jessica because she was ‘bad.’  I worried that I was sending this message through my tone of voice or other nonverbal cues. In any case, it was clear to me that the children were learning something about Jessica that I had not intended. It took me a long time to un-do this learning. 

In one of my courses at the community college, the professor mentioned something about a hidden curriculum. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it might fit here. I’ll bring my textbook and class notes tomorrow.” 

“Oh, I just remembered hearing something from my Child Development Associate (CDA) training last month. There’s a code of ethics for teachers to follow. Maybe that could help us,” adds Shannon. 


Should Food be Used as a Learning Material?

Which person from above most closely represents your beliefs? Was it Shannon, who believes that teachers must use food as learning experiences for the safety of young children? Devan, who believes that children sometimes learn things other than what the teacher intends? Or was it Mrs. Valdez, who believes that playing with food results in children’s learning to waste a precious resource?            

As you can tell, this is a complicated issue with many points of view. Although it is easier for teachers to consider problems in their simplest terms, this is clearly not a black-and-white or right-or-wrong issue. Early childhood professionals must engage in research and reflection to decide the best course of action about whether or not to use food as learning materials. Let’s consider some information that may help in the decision-making process.


Researching the Issue 

As Devan suggested, a reading of what others have written on the issue is a good place to start research. Our reading of other’s work revealed a continuum along which beliefs fall about whether and how to incorporate foodstuffs into the early childhood curriculum (Freeman & Swim, 2002). Some authors of curriculum guides and/or books on art for young children provided suggestions for using food as learning materials, thus, communicating the appropriateness of such practices (Eliason & Jenkins, 1999; Mayesky, 2002). Other authors did not openly support or deny the use of food. However, there was a third group of authors who clearly and strongly spoke out against the use of food as learning materials (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Holt, 1985; Jackman, 1997; Schirrmacher, 1993). This group may not represent the views of the majority of professionals in early childhood education; however, coupling their arguments with the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) Code of Ethical Conduct (Feeney & Kipnis, 1998; referred to as the Code from here on out) makes a case so compelling that we must carefully consider these points.


Three Points of View 

In general, the rationale for avoiding food as learning materials was supported by three main premises (Freeman & Swim, 2002; Swim & Freeman, in press). First, using food as learning materials teaches young children that it is acceptable to eat play materials and play with food. Caring, responsive teachers, like Shannon, are often very cognizant of the types of materials they provide to insure the health and safety of the young children. Ideal 1.1 of the Code says that teachers must create and maintain safe and healthy settings that foster all areas of children’s development (Feeney & Kipnis, 1998). It is true that young children learn through sensorimotor experiences and that teachers must take care in choosing materials to protect their health and safety. However, substituting food materials can lead to other problems – such as the young children constructing the understanding that play materials are good to eat. Learning to distinguish edible from non-edible materials is a developmental task for young children (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Holt, 1985; Jackman, 1997). To illustrate, for their ultimate safety, young children must be able to distinguish blue window cleaner from blue, sweetened beverages. If teachers encourage young children to eat play materials, the children may reach a very dangerous conclusion about there being little difference between edible and non-edible materials.            

Preschool children may also become confused when allowed to play with food materials because they often focus their attention on one aspect of a situation (Berk, 2003, Puckett & Black, 2001). This means that they fail to attend to other relevant elements during an experience. As Mrs. Valdez learned, her son focused his attention on being able to paint with pudding and disregarded that the play occurred on special paper at the art table. Ignoring these relevant pieces of information resulted in this mother and son having a “guidance encounter” during lunch. Mrs. Valdez had to guide her son’s behavior towards a more acceptable alternative – eating his food. Ideal 2.4 of the Code states that teachers must respect families’ child-rearing values and their right to make decisions (Feeney & Kipnis, 1998). Unfortunately, the teachers’ classroom experience conflicted with the parent’s belief about how her child should act during mealtime.           

Second, using food as learning materials teaches young children that it is acceptable to waste limited resources. The increased rates of poverty for young children in our nation (Children’s Defense Fund, 1999) and around the world lead to questioning the justification for the use of food when families struggle to afford this high-cost necessity (Jackman, 1997). Given her family experience, Mrs. Valdez realizes that food is a precious resource that should be treated with great care to minimize waste. We should not forget, also, that young children often achieve unintended outcomes when they engage with curricular materials.

As promised, Devan reviewed her notes and learned that the hidden curriculum can be defined as the knowledge and skills that young children acquire in subtle and indirect ways, from sources other than the actual lessons prepared by the teacher when the children interact with the curriculum proper (Casey, 1994; DeVries & Zan, 1994). When teachers provide food sources as learning materials, we are sanctioning the careless use of food that in countless households and scores of countries may be the mainstay of a meager diet (Freeman & Swim, 2002). Gluing beans and macaroni in mosaics, playing with spaghetti noodles in a sensory table, and making prints from fruits and vegetables teaches young children that those who have can waste. As professional educators, we must devote serious effort to uncovering and reflecting on the hidden messages of our curriculum. This is particularly pertinent since most teachers function according to their middle class values and, as professionals, we must guard against relying on our assumptions (Payne, 2001).           

Third, using food as learning materials violates many premises of multicultural education, or teaching children about diverse groups. When teachers encourage children to play with food important to their cultures, they run the risk of the young children learning that the beliefs and values of their cultures are less important than those of others’. More significant for teachers to consider is the possibility that using food as learning materials may offend some cultural groups who use that food for religious or ethnic celebrations (Schirrmacher, 1993). The Code addresses this very issue when it states that teachers must respect the dignity of each family and its culture, language, customs, and beliefs (I-2.3; Feeney & Kipnis, 1998). In our example, pudding probably does not represent a culturally salient food. However, a significant reflection question is whether Mrs. Valdez’s concern would be more or less valid if she was troubled, for example, about Ms. Shannon and Ms. Devan having the children glue rice and beans on a picture of a tortilla?            

As demonstrated above, Shannon’s desire to review the Code was right on target because several parts of the Code are in conflict in this situation. The Code should be used to provide guidelines for framing and resolving dilemmas when conflicting core values lead to more than one solution, each with a strong justification (Feeney & Freeman, 1999). In this situation, the core values in conflict seem to be the teachers’ desire to keep the children safe and the parent’s right to enact her child-rearing values. A teacher who is comfortable critically examining her own practice will be able to resolve similarly complex situations. For example, in this case she may realize that any curriculum objective that she has planned for her children can be accomplished without wasting food in the process. It is not our intention to demonstrate how to resolve this issue using the Code (see Brophy-Herb, Kostelnik, & Stein, 2001; Feeney & Freeman, 1999, Freeman, 1997 for that information) but rather to show how the Code applies to using food as learning materials.  


Reflection of Personal and Professional Practices 

What to do now? This is a great time to stop and take inventory of your beliefs and practices. Reflecting on your personal and professional beliefs and how these beliefs are communicated to the young children in your classroom is not without emotion. In fact, many people react strongly when engaging in such tasks because the process challenges deeply held, personal beliefs. However, we must always engage in critical reflection as a way to move us as forward individually as professionals and jointly as a profession. Here are some questions that you can ask yourself about the use of food as learning materials: 

·         Have I ever used food in either edible or inedible forms as an art medium? Sensory medium?

·         Have I found myself asking young children not to play with their food during meals?

·         Have I asked children to eat their lunch so that it does not go to waste? Or have I discussed with children the need not to waste resources such as paper towel or soap? 

·         If a parent (or my director, co-worker, etc) asked for my rationale behind my actions/beliefs on using food as learning materials, what would I say? 

·         Do I think that the families in my classroom are comfortable enough to confide in me their personal beliefs about uses of food? 

·         Have I discussed with co-workers anti-biased, multicultural, and hidden curriculum issues? 

·         Have I recently evaluated my practices, curriculum, and materials for cultural appropriateness? 

After much reflection and discussion, Devan and Shannon decided to have a joint meeting with Mrs. Valdez to respond to her concerns. First and foremost, they wanted to thank Mrs. Valdez for bringing this concern to their attention. Without her feeling comfortable enough and being willing to raise this issue, they would not have taken the time to research and reflect on their practice. Because of this experience, they learned the importance of being intentional about reflecting on what the children were learning from their classroom materials and experiences. Then, as a parent-teacher team, they would brainstorm other learning materials to use that would be safe as well as intellectually and culturally appropriate.



A prominent goal for educators is the ongoing examination of those practices that are considered developmentally appropriate. From the first edition of NAEYC’s developmentally appropriate practice book to the current edition, the issue of diversity was re-considered and the 1997 publication reflected such changes. Bredekamp and Copple also noted the dynamic nature of our profession that, as part of the social sciences, requires continued appraisal of our caring for and educating young children. Since teaching is more of an unfolding than a destination, we will never have “arrived.” In this sense we must guard against practices that are deemed right just because we have always done it that way. In taking the time to reflect, we gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in knowing that we have improved our practices through an acknowledgement of the hidden curriculum.


Terri Jo Swim, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of early childhood education and child development at Indiana University/Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) in Fort Wayne, IN. She teaches undergraduate and graduate programs. Her research interests include infant-toddler and preschool curriculum, Reggio Emilia, and teacher education. 

Ramona Freeman, M.S., is a doctoral student at the University of Akron in Akron, OH. She is earning a degree through the Department of Curricular and Instructional Studies, emphasizing early childhood education. Ramona has owned her own family child care program as well as taught in elementary schools.



Berk, L.A. (2003). Child Development. (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon. 

Bredekamp, S., & C. Copple (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: NAEYC. 

Brophy-Herb, H.E., Kostelnik, M.J., & Stein, L.C. (2001). A developmental approach to teaching about ethics. Young Children, 56(1), 80-84. 

Casey, M.B. 1994. Problem centered classrooms: Creating lifelong learners. Phi Delta Kappan, 76, 139-143. 

Children’s Defense Fund (1999). The state of America’s Children Yearbook. Washington, DC: author. 

Delacruz, E. M. (1995). Design for inquiry: Instructional theory research and practice in art education. Reston, VA: Nation Art Education Association. 

DeVries, R. & B. Zan (1994). Moral classrooms, moral children: Creating a constructivist atmosphere in early education. New York: Teachers College Press. 

Eliason, C., & Jenkins, L. (1999). A practical guide to early childhood curriculum. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.  

Feeney, S., & Freeman, N.K. (1999). Ethics and the early childhood educator: Using the NAEYC code. Washington, DC: NAEYC. 

Freeman, N.K. (1997). Using NAEYC’s Code of Ethics: Mama and Daddy taught me right from wrong – Isn’t that enough? Young Children, 52(6), 64-67. 

Freeman, R., & Swim, T. J. (2002). A critical reflection on using food as learning material. Manuscript submitted for publication.  

Holt, B. G. (1985). Ideas that work with young children: Food as art? Young Children, 40 (4), 18-19. 

Jackman, H. (1997). Early education curriculum: A child’s connection to the world. Albany, NY: Delmar. 

Mayesky, M. (2002). Creative activities for young children. (7th ed.). Albany, NY: Delmar Thompson Learning. 

Payne, R. (2001). A framework for understanding poverty. Highland, TX: aha! Process, Inc. 

Puckett, M.B., & Black, J. K. (2001). The young child: Development from pre-birth through age eight. (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall. 

Schirrmacher, R. (1993). Art and creative development for young children. Albany, NY: Delmar. 

Swim, T.J., & Freeman, R. (in press). A time to reflect: The use of food in early childhood classrooms. Young Children.


Additional Resources on Reflective Practices

Elkind, D. (1993). Images of the young child: Collected essays on development and education. Washington, DC: NAEYC. 

Rand, M.K. (2000). Giving it some thought: Cases for early childhood practice. Washington, DC: NAEYC. 

Terrell, E. & S. Klein. Eds. (1998). When teachers reflect: Journeys toward effective, inclusive practice. Washington, DC: NAEYC.